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Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Homage à Liszt
Trois Études de Concert S.144 (1848)[19:28]
2 Études de Concert S.145 (1862-3)[7:46]
Ab irato, Grande étude de perfectionnement S.143 (1852)[2:44]
Grandes Études de Paganini S.141 (1851)[25:52]
Réminiscences de Don Juan S.418 (1841 rev.1877)[18:50]
Études d'exécution transcendente S.139 (18510[62:29]
Amir Katz (piano)
rec. 2018/19, Siemens Villa & Teldex Studio, Berlin
ORFEO C990202 [73:48 + 62:29]

Amir Katz is an Israeli pianist who has studied with Leon Fleischer and Murray Perahia amongst others. He has previously recorded works by Chopin (Études, Nocturnes, Ballades and Impromptus) as well as the Schubert Impromptus and a lauded version of the Mendelssohn Songs without words. He is almost as busy in chamber and vocal music and has recorded two Schubert song cycles in his ongoing partnership with tenor Pavol Breslik (review).

This release brings together all of Liszt's Études in their final published versions. In addition we have one of the most successful and virtuosic paraphrases from the years of the études gestation, the Réminiscences de Don Juan.
Katz is a natural Liszt player; his sense of drama is keen and he certainly has the technique to not only manage but also to shape the flood of notes that Liszt lays down (even in these revised versions which shed much of the über-virtuosity of the first version). Take the Réminiscences; he is spacious in the long opening depicting the statue's dire warnings and 'the horrors of hell' as Katz himself says. He chooses his tempi well so that we feel the full dramatic impact of this catalogue of hellish visions, winding up over and over after the banshee wails of Liszt's keyboard spanning arpeggios. In the duet Là ci darem la mano he finds different colours for the two singers and a fine coaxing manner to his phrasing. The variations are tackled well especially his delicious playing before the Tempo giusto second variation and I was particularly taken with his change of mood as the dark clouds begin to oppress the carefree swagger of the duet. In the transition into the Champagne aria finale Katz chooses Liszt's more extended version (Katz notes that though Liszt considered the shorter transition was more effective Liszt was more partial to the longer version). On a personal note I find Katz a little under tempo in the Champagne aria; I tend to prefer the more breathless quality of a faster finale (a breathlessness that is evident in the original aria. I love Hamelin here on either of his two recordings, MusicandArts CD-723 or Hyperion CDA66874). That is only a personal view however and Katz takes pains in the booklet to point out Liszt's dislike of extreme tempi for their own sake; indeed there are cadenzas in the score that Liszt marks non troppo presto, not too fast. That one little point aside I can't imagine anyone would fail to be swept up with the grand vision that Katz brings us.

The rest of this double CD is devoted to Liszt's études. The largest collection, the Études d'exécution transcendente had been under development since Liszt's childhood; his 1826 Études en 12 exercises became the massively overblown Grandes Études of 1837 and reached their final version in 1851. They demonstrate just how ably Liszt's judgement served him in paring away the excess to leave the essential core. Katz brings as much drama to these as he does to the opera fantasy. The opening Prélude, almost a warm up before the main event, has some nicely judged accelerandi. In the untitled A minor étude he finds a real lightness of touch especially after the wild ride of the middle section. His tone is glorious in the third study, paysage; he takes the central section, marked with a little more animated tempo, at a faster pace than I am accustomed to and likewise makes more of the phrased staccato but I am impressed with how he builds this to the appasionato assai (very impassioned) in the later bars before the tranquil ending. I find this quality of his appealing – I find myself caught by a tempo or dynamic that isn't what I am used to hearing but he turns it to dramatic effect. The marcato in the middle section of Ricordanza almost seemed too abrupt, too bright but from this he creates a nuanced increase in intensity that is perfectly matched by the decrease through the ensuing cascade passages. The untitled F minor étude has immense clarity and focus coupled with fluency and poetry; it is this poetry that struck me as I listened to the first bars. This is not the hard-driven passion that some aim for (and there is nothing wrong with that approach). No, this is a simmering heat that threatens to boil over, when it does at the precipitous cadenza before the stretta coda it is wonderful. For me the opening of Harmonies du soir is a masterclass in pedalling, a marvellous contrast of shimmering impressionism and sparkling clarity.

I have just picked out some points here. The playing is full of felicitous touches and Katz has more than enough technique for these giants. Not everything is to my taste; for example in an otherwise exemplary Mazeppa there is a passage in interlocking octaves in which he allows this huge wall of sound to intrude into the opening of the left hand variation blurring the texture. Niggles like this are the exception rather than the rule however.

Of the three études (or Caprices poétiques - as they were originally published) and 2 études de concert only the first, Il Lamento has been neglected and is seldom if ever played alone unlike its familiar companions. In a way you can see why; it is a little overlong for its material though one can appreciate Liszt's skill in creating the varying guises in which it appears. Here again Katz's capacity for storytelling is evident with grand gestures and hushed sotto voce, delicious in the G major section, easily capturing the capricious, improvisatory nature of this étude. He is as strong in the others; a fluent and mercurial La Leggiarezza certainly caught my attention. If I feel that his Gnomes are rather polite in their round dance that is perhaps more an indication of my introduction to this piece courtesy of Georges Cziffra and his shooting sky-rockets and surges of tempi but there is nothing to quibble about in Katz's gossamer legerdemain.

It is nice to have the rarely heard Ab irato; grande étude de perfectionnement in this collection. Written a year after the final version of the Transcendental études it is a perfect, fiendish little miniature. I may prefer Leslie Howard in his slightly more demonic performance (Hyperion CDA67015) but it is a very close call.

The dramatic and lyrical qualities that Katz brings to all of these études is mirrored in his Paganini études. If I say that for me Marc-André Hamelin's astonishing recording is the one to hear (Hyperion - review) that does not take anything away from this very satisfying performance, virtuosic and characterful.

To have all the études collected together in one set is very useful. To have have them together in such cogent, focussed, vibrant performances is a real plus and coupled with the warm, rich sound makes this a set that would grace any music library. The excellent, informative notes by Katz are in English and German and give an insight into Liszt's approach to teaching, comments about the pieces and their conception from the études that Liszt wrote in his teenage years as well as testimonies from Liszt pupils on how he approached these works in his late masterclasses.

Rob Challinor

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